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May 20, 2013

GEN Hall of Shame

Meet the Congressional enemies of research funding.

GEN Hall of Shame

Get ready to boo and hiss—these politicians have used cries of “wasteful spending” as justification for cutting funding to federal agencies involved in research or interfering with NIH grants. [© laurent hamels - Fotolia.com]

  • Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK)

    2012: In his “Waste Book 2012,” cites examples of what he deemed wasteful NIH grants, including $939,771 spent on three Drosophila melanogaster studies the book summarizes as “Male fruit flies are attracted to young females more than to older ones.”

    But the multi-year NIH grants cover far more than sexual attraction: 5R01AG030593 concerns mechanisms of olfactory modulation; 5R01AG023166, dietary restriction; and 2R01GM074675, hormonal modulation of aggression.

    The grants were among 10 public and private funding sources cited in a study published March 1 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, “Aging Modulates Cuticular Hydrocarbons and Sexual Attractiveness in Drosophila melanogaster,” which sparked the senator’s ire. That study showed that the composition of D. melanogaster cuticular hydrocarbons—through which key pheromones are produced—is significantly affected by aging in both sexes, and that these changes are robust to different genetic backgrounds.

    Of eight other studies that cited the grants funded by NIH, two focused on sexual attractiveness, while the rest focused on fruit fly diet and aging.

    A longtime critic of wasteful federal research spending—Henry I. Miller, Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution—made the case recently for studying the fruit fly: “A century of studies on the genetics of Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, an organism that shares about half of its genes with humans, has yielded information critical to understanding the process of aging and how genes work.”

    Individual NIH grants are also faulted in Coburn’s “Waste Book” reports for 2010 and 2011. The 2011 edition spotlights three grants totaling $592,527 for what the book calls a “study of throwing behavior in chimpanzees and its neurological origins.” According to the project descriptions, one grant focused on “factors which influence the development of the central nervous system and its behavioral and communicative correlates”10; another, “the neurobiological basis of individual differences in socio-communicative behavior and cognition in primates, joint attention”11; and a third, “the relationship between the evolution of executive functions, broadly defined, in primates in the context of individual and phylogenetic changes in the brain, notably the prefrontal cortex and associated striatal and limbic system structures.”12

    2009: Joins Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in releasing “Stimulus Checkup,” a report alleging that $7 billion of the $814 billion in “stimulus” or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds was “wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects,” citing in part 10 research grants funded by NSF and four by NIH among 100 total projects. While many of the 14 involved social-science topics, the senators included in their criticism a $210,000 NSF study of learning and cognition in honeybees, and an $8,408 NIH study examining the influence of ethanol on the neural mechanisms that control spatial navigation in mice.

    But as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology noted in a blog post at the time, honeybee research only sounds funnier than it is: “As honeybees disappear from colony collapse disorder, our crops are at risk of having no bees to pollinate them. Understanding their learning may help mediate the effects of honeybee declines.”

    Researchers behind the mouse study told NSF they saw applications to understanding the effects of excess alcohol consumption in people: “Understanding the neurobiological mechanisms that are responsible for the detrimental behavioral actions of acute alcohol is essential for developing effective strategies to treat or prevent problems associated with alcohol abuse,” according to the grant abstract.

  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

    2009: Joins Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) in releasing “Stimulus Checkup,” a report alleging that $7 billion of the $814 billion in “stimulus” or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds was “wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects,” citing in part 10 research grants funded by NSF and four by NIH among 100 total projects. (See entry on Tom Coburn, above.)

  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

    2012: Proposes “A Platform to Revitalize America,” a 103-page spending plan that calls for eliminating $8 trillion in federal spending over 10 years—in part by reducing NIH funding to 20% below the FY 2008 level of $29.6 billion (which would be about $23.7 billion). After noting how NIH’s budget had doubled since FY 2000, Paul wrote: “NIH is responsible for basic and applied research on a variety of medical issues. However, the private sector also invests in research and development, spending nearly $40 billion annually without taxpayer funding. Additionally, much of the research and development undertaken by the NIH provides direct subsidies to the pharmaceutical industry, which consistently ranks among the most profitable industries in the United States.”13

    2011: Unveils a “5-Year Balanced Budget” proposal that also calls for reducing NIH funding to 20% below the FY 2008 level.14

  • Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

    2011: The Senate majority leader, along with speaker of the House John Boehner, allowed President Barack Obama’s administration to convince him to include the across-the-board budget-cutting mechanism to the 2011 law that required Washington to, alternatively, cut at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, also as Bob Woodward reported in “The Price of Politics.”

    Reid has responded to the unpopular budget cuts resulting from sequestration by pointing the finger entirely at the other side of the aisle, declaring on the Senate floor April 24: “The Republicans like the pain. They like the pain." The verbal volley was leveled as Reid proposed his own alternative to the pain: Using savings from the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan toward the FY ’13 budget.

  • Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)

    February 26: During a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, Toomey rebutted an argument of Hunter Rawlings, Ph.D., president of the American Association of Universities, that sequestration may result in NIH and NSF being forced to adjust to a lower spending baseline for future budgets: “It's not necessarily the case that NIH per se has to take the cut [in funding required by sequestration]. If the administration has the discretion across all nondefense categories, they might decide that—I don't know—that building taxiways, new taxiways on a seldom-used airport somewhere should be a lower priority than NIH.”

    But the Budget Control Act of 2011 requires that unless $1.2 trillion is cut over 10 years, Obama “shall order a sequestration” in which he is “to reduce each account within the security category or nonsecurity category by a dollar amount calculated by multiplying the baseline level of budgetary resources in that account at that time by a uniform percentage.”

    During the same hearing, Toomey sought to downplay the effects of sequestration: “This is really small in the context of the total spending and the economy. The federal government has doubled its spending in the last ten years and we're talking about a 2.5% reduction in [budget authority, and 1.25% from spending outlays] from that 100% growth.”

    2003: As a U.S. representative from Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, introduced an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill (H.R. 2660), the “Amendment to Eliminate Ridiculous NIH Studies,” denying further federal spending on five NIH-funded studies. The amendment failed 210–212.

    Toomey cited Mechanisms Influencing Sexual Risk-Taking15; Spatial and Temporal Interrelationships between Human Population and the Environment16; Longitudinal Trends in the Sexual Behavior of Older Men17; HIV Risk Reduction Among Asian Women18; and Health Survey of Two-Spirited Native Americans.19

    “I simply want to make the point that there are so many far more important, very real diseases that are affecting real people; and that is what this kind of money could be used for,” Toomey said on the Senate floor. “Who thinks this stuff up? And, worse, who decides to actually fund these sorts of things? Well, unfortunately, the NIH has done so. These are not applications that are worthy of taxpayer funds.”


Readers' Comments

Posted 05/20/2013 by Gregory Crowther

Let's not forget Sen. Coburn's highly misleading "Under the Microscope" report about NSF, either!
http://www.livescience.com/14353-coburn-nsf-funding-misleading.html

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